New sheriff sworn in as Lee Baca retires; faces serious issues in LA County jails (Updated)

Interim LA County Sheriff John Scott is sworn in at the Board of Supervisors Hearing Room at the Hall of Administration on Jan. 30.
Interim LA County Sheriff John Scott is sworn in at the Board of Supervisors Hearing Room at the Hall of Administration on Jan. 30.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Update 4:54 p.m. There's a new sheriff in Los Angeles County: John Scott was sworn in Thursday as interim head of the nation's largest Sheriff's Department, two hours after Lee Baca officially retired.

Baca stepped down amid federal allegations that jail deputies brutalized inmates and committed other misconduct. He didn't attend the ceremony.

Scott, who used to run the department's custody operations, says he'll focus on continuing jail system reforms. He's on loan from the Orange County Sheriff's Department, where he's second in command.

Voters will elect a new L.A. County sheriff later this year. Scott's not running, but he will serve until the new term starts Dec. 1.


Previously: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca retires Thursday after 15 years. Orange County Undersheriff John Scott has agreed to serve as interim sheriff until voters select a new one.

Baca led one of the largest patrol forces in the U.S., responsible for policing many communities in L.A. County. He's also been in charge of the L.A. County jail system, which is the largest in the country.

The jails are the subject of two federal investigations, one of which led to the indictment of 18 current and former sheriff’s department employees. And allegations of inmate beatings eventually led the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to convene a panel to investigate violence in the jails. In 2013, they issued a report that concluded there was a culture of violence in the jails and recommended several reforms.

But Baca also considers himself a real innovator and a progressive when it comes to incarceration. One of his signature policies was to introduce education-based incarceration, in which jail time is used to provide educational opportunities to inmates.

By the end of his tenure, the outgoing sheriff started to address the serious issues in the jail system. Besides new leadership, he beefed up the internal affairs department and implemented a new use of force policy.

And there does seem to be some progress: serious use of force incidents are down, according to the latest numbers coming out of the system. The department said it is also making progress on breaking the wall of silence, the anti-snitching culture among deputies. That means deputies are reporting when they use force on an inmate as they are supposed to do.

But there is a whole lot left for the next sheriff to clean up.

RELATED: New sheriff in town: A look at 9 potential successors to LA Sheriff Lee Baca

Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, is a jail watchdog. Here's what he said about what the new sheriff will face: “My first thought was famine, war, pestilence and death.”

Of course, he is exaggerating. But his point is that the ongoing federal investigations into the jails and at least one patrol station are serious challenges for the department’s next leader.

"Basically the next sheriff is going to have to deal with a legacy of ongoing investigations or, potentially, significant judicial oversight into the way the jails are run,” Eliasberg said. “And that's an enormous legacy, I think."

One area that will likely be the focus of the next sheriff in L.A. County is the culture of deputies assigned to work in the jails.

The Blue Ribbon commission report on the jails recommended changing a particular practice in the sheriff's department: using the jails as punishment for deputies who messed up in field assignments. This created an environment of deputies fresh out of the academy working in the jails – because all deputies start their careers there – mixed with colleagues who were basically taken off the streets because of performance issues. The commission found that was not an ideal combination.

The new sheriff will likely need to figure out how to make working in the jails an attractive assignment— just like working in the patrol stations. Some experts say the way to do that is to promote people who work in the jails just as often as those who work on patrol. It is also important to beef up training. In other words, don't just train deputies to be cops; train them to work in the jails, so they know it's valued.

The department is beginning to shift in that direction. But culturally, it doesn't seem to be at a place yet where working in the jails is as respected as being a patrol officer out on the streets.

Rina Palta